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Your surroundings can sabotage your commitment to healthy living | Gustafson
The facts are clear and simple. According to a study recently published in "Health Beat," the newsletter of the Harvard Medical School (March 1), five lifestyle habits are considered responsible for heart disease and many other widespread illnesses that plague us today. They are smoking, lack of sufficient physical activity, weight problems, poor eating habits and excessive alcohol consumption.
Alone or together, the study says, these lifestyle choices set the stage for artery-damaging atherosclerosis. They also adversely affect blood pressure, cholesterol- and blood sugar levels. Known long-term results are heart attack, stroke and artery disease. Beyond the cardiovascular system, lifestyle-related damages are caused to the kidneys, bone structure and other organs, including the brain.
The survey concludes that turning most or all of these habits around can decrease the likelihood of suffering a heart attack – which is the number one cause of death in the United States – by up to 83 percent.
As a strategy for health-promoting lifestyle changes, the researchers recommend to quit smoking, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight range, eat a highly nutritious diet and reduce alcohol consumption to moderate levels.
None of this can be considered "news," of course. If you ever had any interest in adopting a healthier lifestyle, you already know that you shouldn't smoke, drink too much, eat junk food and sit on your butt all day. So why keep talking about the same old stuff over and over again?
The answer is that we seem to keep fighting a losing battle, despite of the fact that we have all the information needed to dig ourselves out of our public health crisis. Obesity rates are still growing unabatedly. Two thirds of all Americans are overweight. Catastrophic weight problems affect one third of today's children. How can this be when we know exactly what it would take to change all that?
I watch with great interest the popular TV show, "The Biggest Loser," on NBC. Although, I don't like the idea of turning people's health problems into a spectacle, I can see some value in witnessing the enormous struggle that comes with obesity on many levels. Listening to the highly personal stories of the candidates, how they kept getting heavier and heavier despite of their best efforts to regain some measure of control over their lives, is heartbreaking. But what I keep hearing from all participants of the show is this: "I did not know how to stop gaining weight because I did not have the knowledge or the tools to make the necessary changes." So much for people knowing best what's good for them.
It is unrealistic to expect consumers to make better choices by themselves without providing them with the necessary information they must have to know the difference. For example, when New York City required fast food outlets and coffee shops to post calorie counts of their products, critics of the measure were quick to spread the message that it would have no significant impact on the behavior of customers. But, as it turns out, it did make a difference – not right away, but over time.
Researchers found that average purchases at fast food places showed a 6 percent reduction in calories, almost 15 calories per item, within a year after the requirements were enacted. At coffee shops, like Starbucks, calorie cut-backs were as high as 26 percent. These numbers may not be all that dramatic, but they show that giving fact-based information to consumers does matter. Or, as one of the participants in "The Biggest Loser" show said: "I changed my life by making decisions based on knowledge."
Unfortunately, this is not the way it works in the real world. As consumers, we are not informed but rather seduced into making choices that are not really our own. Advertising is not about education but selling, we all know that. It is hard to almost impossible to escape the constant manipulation and take more control over even the smallest decisions we make every day. As one of my clients who used her three-weeks vacation to lose weight at an exotic spa resort said to me: "When I go home, I will be back in an environment where healthy lifestyle habits are neither plausible nor possible." A sad but by no means unique scenario.
As a health counselor, I naturally believe in the power of positive lifestyle changes. But I'm also keenly aware of the very real limitations that are imposed on us by life's circumstances. We can't hope to live on an isolated island forever, whether it is a TV set or a luxurious health spa. All we can do is navigate our way around the very real obstacles life keeps throwing at us and take on our challenges one by one. There are no easy ways or shortcuts.
In the end, we may have to be content with a few small achievements at a time and keep trying for more, hoping it will eventually add up to something bigger. In the meantime, even the tiniest victories deserve to be treasured.
I was full of sympathy and quite touched when I heard one of the candidates of "The Biggest Loser" say: "What is life-changing? It is not some special event but a thousand little things in life that we all take for granted until we no longer have them." And then he drove off in his convertible sports car, the one he couldn't fit in for many years. He looked really, really happy.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, available in bookstores, at timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You also can follow Timi on Twitter at twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD.